When the journey is the destination: a trip on Norway’s Bergensbanen.

As every person’s preferences evolve through time, I’m finding my own taste for travel changing the more I grow old. At 16 or thereabouts the best trip was to descend to Ibiza with a group of pals, our goal see how intoxicated we could get; my first wage brought the long haul phase, as I chased DVT on sleepless plane journeys that left me memories of airport concourses and little else. These days it seems I’m getting into the “travel is a journey” phase, where the purpose of a trip is not to get somewhere, but the journey per se.
I can blame this to the amount of travel literature I’ve been ploughing through recently, but the sparkle that started everything wasn’t due to any book. It was, instead, a programme that I found scavenging through the in-flight entertainment on a long haul flight. It was a six-hour long TV show, made by Norwegian broadcaster NRK, where they packed the National Rail train plying the Oslo to Bergen route with cameras and, essentially, broadcasted the whole journey. Every minute of it. It speaks volumes about Norway and what a nice place it is that this became one of the countries’ best rating shows (you can learn more about it through this brilliant TED talk if you want), starting a whole new concept of reality TV. Back then, though, I knew nothing about all this; all I could think was “Man, I want to be on that train”.
There are many train journeys, in Europe, that can yield beautiful views and interesting encounters, ploughing through manicured landscapes soaked in history. If you are one of those posh fellas with a golden ring on your pinkie toe and a predilection for peach shirts and green blazers you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with some of them: Cinque Terre, the Champagne, Côte d’Azur. But Norway? Last time I checked, Michael Portillo hadn’t made a six-episodes dispatch on the railway between Trondheim and Bodø. But that’s an utter shame.
I left my Oslo room on high spirits after a brilliant night of conversation and laughter with Mona and her daughter Louisa (this is their AirBnb page, which I warmly recommend). Around me Oslo flickered to life as I walked to the Sentralstasjon, warm lights oozing through the large windows that every building seems to have over here, casting a view on cosy, welcoming homes. The contrast with the London of frosted glasses, shut-down curtains and minuscule windows couldn’t have been larger.
Large train stations in Norway are a thing of understated, thoughtful beauty: there are revolving doors to stop down the cool winds from the platforms making their way up, and Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. On board it’s much of the same: working, free Wi-Fi, clean and comfy seats which are a pleasure to curl into and look out of the – obviously enormous – windows. For somebody used to the standards of England’s beleaguered rail companies, riding on NSB’s trains is a pleasure and yet another example of how daft the privatisation of British Rail was.
The Bergensbanen is one of the few cross-country railways in a country whose orography could only have been conjured by God on a day when he felt like throwing some good challenge to the engineers of the future. As the Norwegian Railway agency made a point to underline, the Bergensbanen counted 490 km and some 180 tunnels, going from zero to 1200 meters and back to zero, skirting around fjords, rivers and glaciers.
Despite all this, things started tamely enough as we rolled through leafy suburbs of Oslo dotted with beautiful, red-painted houses and business parks adorned with logos of IT companies (the sight of SAP causing me an involuntary shiver). We soon lost ourselves in a succession of hills, lakes, pastures and woods that were slowly turning from green to a cacophony of yellows and reds as October made inroads. With a crackle, the intercom came alive with the news that the restaurant car was now open for business.
Click on the photos to start the slideshow.
Restaurant cars have come a long way since the days when Hercule Poirot was investigating the murder of some gout-afflicted colonel of the Indian army on his way to Nice. The one on the NSB train was as spotless as the rest of the convoy, minimalist in a certain Scandinavian way and, as far as food was concerned, as close as one of Oslo’s 7-11 as it was possible without being one. Gone were the big glasses of Bordeaux, elaborate dishes and tablecloths: waffles, hot dogs, pot noodles and Thai-inspired salads had arrived instead. Worst still, meatballs didn’t seem to. E available, something that at these latitudes must either be sacrilegious or illegal. Coffee refills, however, cost a pittance and it was stuff you actually wanted to drink.
On my way back from the restaurant car, as I negotiated myself and my booty of Thai salad and styrofoam cup of caffeine, I glanced outside to see that everything had changed. Gone was the lush countryside and wide valleys, replaced by twisted trees lost in fog, rising towards the murky sky like the fingers of a skeletal hand. We were now into the wildest part of our journey, where the plucky red train hauled up to 1200 meters, skimming the edges of Hardangerjøkulen, continental Europe’s largest glacier.
For hours we travelled across the high lands through an endless theory of lapis lazuli blue lakes, white snowfields, grey cliffs and crimson Erica shrubs. I sat rapt in admiration whilst tourists on a tour clicked their life away through cameras small and large. Behind me, a Norwegian mother and her two daughters – possibly the only two locals in the car but for a guy with a surfboard at the very end – sat quietly, chatting and giggling as they plaid quizzes and knitted. Far to the North, the silhouette of the Hardangerjøkulen emerged between the cottages.
Our descent from the crisp coolness of the Alps began after XYZ. Brief intervals between tunnels revealed woods, shining streams and the occasional village as we lost meter after meter of elevation on our rush towards Bergen. Then, suddenly, the view opened on a fjord whose shores were covered in thick woods that still hadn’t turned yellow, with waters so calm that they seemed painted. Finally, after some seven hours of pleasant travelling, we entered Bergen.
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